Wirawila, Sri Lanka - On an air base at the southern end of this tropical island nation - about as far from the United States as a person can get - a team of 12 Green Beret specialists is training Sri Lankan soldiers in combat medi-vac techniques, radio work and field engineering. Live fire exercises are next. Since the beginning of June, the special forces team has paved the way for an expanding US military and economic presence in a nation that normally attracts Americans for its beaches, wild elephant herds and ancient Buddhist ruins.
Unannounced, and unreported, the US military activity in Sri Lanka involves considerable security and political risks. When the Green Berets leave their base, the go under armed guard.
While Sri Lanka is one of the worlds most beautiful places, it is also home to one of the worlds longest and most vicious civil wars. Over the last decade terrorists bombs, the shelling of civilians, and thousands of hightime murders have left fifty thousand people dead.
Unlike most joint military exercises, the Pentagon has not publicized the Sri Lanka mission. It has not been mentioned in Sri Lankan newspapers, which are heavily censored by a government sensitive about human-rights abuses laid at the feet of its military.
The training comes nearly six years after Sri Lanka was the only Asian nation to offer refueling bases for US warplanes during the Persian Gulf war. The mission also comes at a time when the United States is more willing to sell Sri Lanka sensitive "lethal" military equipment, and when construction is underway there for one of the worlds biggest Voice of America Stations.
Until now, the United States has had a small apparent role in the countries war - a bitter ethnic struggle pitting Tamil militants fighting for a separate homeland in the north against the Singhalese majority of the south, who want to keep Sri Lanka whole.
"We have no dog in this fight" said the American military attachi to Sri Lanka, Col. Carl Kockrum, who helped bring the Green Berets over for a mission code named "operation balanced style".
But the small - yet increasingly frequent - presence of US military advisors over the last two years suggest that that formulation may be changing.
So does the State Departments official determination last year that the main Tamil group fighting for independence - The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers - is a "terrorist group".
And so does the recent finding by US human-right monitors that the Sri Lankan government is seriously addressing its unhappy history of harboring quasi- official death squads. That positive State Department conclusion - which some human-rights groups in Sri Lanka say grossly overstates the governments progress - allows the United States to move even closer to Sri Lanka.
For its part, the Sri Lankan government, which has long included anti-American socialists, is acting like a friend of the United States. Last year, the new government broke a campaign promise to reject to reject plans for a Voice of America transmitter.
And although an official ban on selling US lethal equipment to Sri Lanka remains in place because of the governments human-rights record, the United States recently sold six patrol boats to Sri Lanka and, sources said, its discussing the sale of guns to arm them, along with military helicopters. Sri Lankan inquiries about night-vision equipment also have been made.
Although Sri Lankan requests for US satellite imaging technology were turned down, US officials guided the Sri Lankans to Israeli suppliers of advanced surveillance technology.
All these steps, US officials say are possible because of the dramatic improvement in Sri Lanka's human-rights record.
Both US and Sri Lankan officials in Colombo say there are good strategic reasons to be deepening ties. The American military is attracted to the islands prime location between the Middle East and the Far East and near China. And Sri Lanka is seeking a political counterbalance to its giant neighbor India.
But both sides also say they have good reason to keep their arrangements low-key. International and political affairs can be perilous business here. Consider the experience of the Indian Army.
Saying it was on a peace keeping mission to help solve the Tamil-Singhalese ethnic war, India sent fifty thousand troops there in 1987, with the apparent approval of all parties. Three years later, and after 1500 soldiers were killed, India left Sri Lanka in a Vietnam-style defeat.
Then in 1991, Sri Lankan Tamil militants assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Prime minister who sent Indian troops to their country. Tamil militants have also assassinated a Sri Lankan President, several defense ministers, and a long list of other top Sri Lankan politicians and officials.
Late last year, the Sri Lankan military stormed the Tamil north and routed the Tamil Tigers (and many civilians) form their long time stronghold. The Tigers, however, still control hundreds of miles of Sri Lankan jungle and periodically send out teams to attack patrols, villages and some heavy populated sites in Colombo.
The Tigers have their own US connections. Well-to-do Tamils living in the United States sent considerable sums of money to the rebels.
With a blood history like this, its is not surprising that the Green Beret team arrived unannounced. In a recent interview, the Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar denied that any American soldiers were on active duty in his country. None the less, a second round of joint exercises is scheduled for the fall.
This studied silence is quite a change from the fanfare that usually accompanies similar joint military exercises held by the US commander in chief, Pacific (CINPAC) in Thailand, India, Indonesia and other Asian countries.
Indeed, the policy goal that drives the Joint Command Exercise and Training Program is one of peacetime "engagement" with "sister militaries". In theory, the local military receives valuable training while the US military gains knowledge - for possible future use - about how that foreign military works. The program is also supposed to create an aura of good feeling between both sides.
But in those other countries in the joint training program, the local soldiers learning from Americans are not headed off to fight in a civil war.
The commander of the Special Forces team, Capt. George McDonald is spending June teaching Sri Lankan junior officers, among other things, how to set up a proper helicopter landing and how to make up a precise pickup.
Captain McDonald and his team enjoy the exotic surroundings - "I never dreamed there would be peacocks wondering the air base" the Captain said - but they also know that this is no place for easy going R&R.
As for the Sri Lankan soldiers Capt. McDonalds team is training at the Wirawila air base, many will be soon leaving the peacocks behind and heading for the Tamil battle zone in the north.
American human-rights monitors and others generally report that Sri Lankan human-rights practices began to improve in 1993 just before the ruling party for the last 17 years was voted out of office. The victorious new government of Chandrika Kumarathunga campaigned on a platform of respecting human-rights and punishing those who had not.
In addition to setting up several commissions to investigate death squads, the new government also offered to negotiate with the Tamil minority - twenty percent of Sri Lanka's 18 million people. The Tamil militants entered into negotiations last year but later resumed attacks on the Sri Lankan army and civilians. The war continues today.
Some human-rights monitors are not convinced that conditions has significantly improved.
"Yes, there has been some improvements for the early 1990's, but young Tamils and other people are still 'disappearing' all the time", said Sherine Xavier, and activist for a largely Tamil human-rights group in Colombo. "And the government has yet to punish a single death-squads perpetrator.
Other human-rights officials confirm that although trials alleged death-squads participants are on the way, nobody has been convicted. Some Sri Lankan officers accused of death-squad crimes remain on active duty.
"This talk of great progress is all really wishful thinking on the part of governments like the United States, which want to get more involved in Sri Lanka and has now found a way to do it," Ms Xavier said. "Terrible human- right habits don't change overnight".
Ms Xavier also said the arrival of American military advisors - word of which, she said, was circulating around Colombo despite newspaper censorship - was a risky step.
"The message to Tamil people in particular is that the US supports the government side," she said. "It will be a big thing - that's surely why they don't want to let it out."
Should the news become widely known in Sri Lanka, protest might follow. There were noisy demonstrations in 1994 over a plan to build the Voice of America relay station on 400 acres alongside the Indian ocean, 30 miles north of Colombo airport.
The protests were led by a local Catholic Bishop, and taken up by a major political party, and featured many marches on the VOA site. During one protest, police killed one protester and wounded others.
A leader of the 1994 protest was Fenando Newton of the Center for Society and Religion, a church-sponsored group in Colombo. He said that rumors in Colombo that US military may be training Sri Lankan soldiers suggest "that all our initial fears about the VOA situation are coming true."
"Definitely, I think there is something sinister going on with the US and Sri Lanka," Mr. Newton said. "I hope it is not true, but if we learn there are American soldiers here in Sri Lanka, then we would have to protest. It is a form of intervention in our internal affairs."